In 2010, a new generation of Republican governors rose to power by posing as pragmatic Mr. Fix-Its with "common sense" answers to the nation's most intractable problems. In his victory speech in Wisconsin, the newly elected Scott Walker vowed to find "solutions to the challenges we face," promising "every worker, every family in this state that you have an ally in the governor's office." Instead, Walker and his band of GOP brothers – including rookies like John Kasich in Ohio and Rick Scott in Florida, as well as veterans like Jan Brewer in Arizona – have used their offices to wage ideological crusades against union workers, immigrants and the poor. Far from finding solutions, these GOP fire-breathers have paralyzed their state legislatures, sparked federal litigation and even, in the case of Kasich, earned a direct rebuke from voters – who flocked to the polls last fall to roll back the governor's attempt to gut collective-bargaining rights for state workers. "The wave of recently elected, highly ideological Republicans have already seen their politics fail," says Simon Rosenberg, president of the progressive think tank NDN. "Their numbers are in the toilet because they grossly miscalibrated the mood of the country."
But while these high-profile conservatives are giving good governance a bad name, a new wave of leaders across the nation, both in and out of government, is quietly creating real change – on issues ranging from mortgage foreclosures to marriage equality. "The policy gridlock in Washington is creating opportunities for entrepreneurial politicians in the states to move on things that matter to people," says Rosenberg. Click through this slideshow to meet a dozen of the most inspiring and effective movers and shakers at the state and local level.
By Tim Dickinson